Saturday, June 29, 2013

Oh Goody, Another Stage of Grief

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages. I like the model which expands them into seven. As I have remarked before (and is generally agreed) they don't happen in neat, linear order — but the current one is new.

I'm glad to say I've never in my life suffered from it before, though I've witnessed how awful it can be for others. With no previous first-hand experience, it took me a little while to label it. I've been calling it boredom, apathy, emptiness. Every activity has been feeling pointless, every pleasure lack-lustre. I've even lost interest in the taste of food. 

Eventually these things started adding up and I thought to re-read the stages of grief. Ah yes, there it is, in both the five- and seven-stage models: depression. Those other things I mentioned are symptoms, and so are loneliness and reflecting on the past, which I've been experiencing too. It's not a very severe case, I suppose: not profound despair, just a kind of dullness. I was about to say, 'I haven't been feeling suicidal or anything' — but hang on, yes, those thoughts have crossed my mind recently. Only they too seemed uninteresting, nothing to take seriously. I would have expected them to be full of drama. Perhaps, after all, they sneak up, insidious.

Don't go panicking, anyone, please. I'm really not going to act on them. I couldn't leave my poor little cats uncared-for. I wouldn't so upset my family and friends. And it would let Andrew down. He was concerned about the cats when he was dying. 'The poor little pussy cats,' he called them then, wishing he could see them again. He relied on me to look after them. Even more, he wanted me to live my life and be happy; I know that.

Besides, I've just made arrangements to start seeing my psychologist again, a woman Andrew and I used to consult to help us through various situations in the past. How ironic to look back and recall our last appointment with her many months ago, when we were coping with everything so well that we didn't see the need to continue. Only a short time later his physical health began a steeper decline, and then the Alzheimer's became more pronounced ... ah well. Anyway, she's very good.

Oddly enough, it wasn't the depression which made me think of seeing her again, but a woolly-mindedness I've developed. I even asked my GP, the other day, to give me the cognitive test for dementia again. As he put it, I 'blitzed it in' with a perfect score, and I could tell while I was doing it that what it measures is something different in quality from what I've been experiencing. 

I have been told that memory gaps and absent-mindedness are symptoms of grief, and I had them more dramatically in the early days. As I say, it's not a linear progression; here they are, back again. So I thought I had reached the time when being with my grief and observing the process might not be quite enough any more. And that was before I realised I'm depressed! Now, getting help is looking even more like a damn good idea.

It's quite educational, actually, to observe what depression feels like on the inside — this degree of it anyhow. I don't want to find out how a more severe form might feel! 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Becoming a Little Old Lady

I was in Coles, considering which of two items to buy, and I felt my lips move forward into an expression that comes with that state of mind. 

In my head I could hear him say, 'I wish you wouldn't purse up your mouth like that'. (He said it only once, years ago, but it stuck. I know I have that habit.)

I started to soften my mouth again, then suddenly had the thought that it doesn't matter any more. There's no-one left to look pretty for. I can let myself turn into a funny-looking little old lady if I like. (As this is happening inevitably, perhaps the new attitude is just as well.)

I don't expect I'll seriously let myself go; far too vain for that. But it might be nice to free myself from some social expectations.  It might be nice not to fight too hard against reality, to just be whatever I am.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Realising I'm Not the Only One

This experience is so intensely personal that I am liable to forget how common it is. In that, being widowed resembles other great milestones of human life — first sexual experience, giving birth, facing death.... We must each experience these things as if no-one else ever had, because for each of us they are in fact unique. And yet, they are also so very common. We all get born; we all die. We don't all lose our virginity or have children, but many, many of us do, and have done over the centuries.

I become afraid of seeming self-centred, not so much here where the purpose of this blog is to record my personal experience of widowhood, but out there in the world at large, or at least in my community. I remember explaining to someone I'd just met that I'd been widowed recently. She said, a little testily, 'Yes, I was widowed two years ago,' and I realised I'd been talking as if I was the only person it had ever happened to. I imagine my personal grief to be more intense than anyone else's, my love to have been greater. But how can we measure grief or love? Both are subjective. I can only say this is my greatest love or most intense grief.

At the Life Writing group last week, we had to choose a topic beginning with the letter R. One woman chose Romance, and told the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband. She was unable to stop herself from breaking down at the end, as she read, 'We were married for 45 years; then, four years ago, he died in a tragic accident.'

'Is that what I have to look forward to?' I thought. 'To still be sobbing four years from now?' 

Ah, and why wouldn't I be? I can't imagine that I'll ever stop missing him.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

There's No Logic To It

I have a comforting vision of him: an angelic version of himself, come to visit me.

I read my blog posts of a year ago and I'm reminded of how very difficult life had become for us both. I realise all over again that we simply couldn't have gone on. I confront what it would have been like if he'd lingered — the inevitable slow decline — and I'm thankful we were both spared that.

People tell me I look well, and I point out that I no longer have the stress of being his carer. 'I have grief,' I say, 'But not stress.'

I go out for lunch with a couple of women friends. I enjoy the food and conversation. We laugh together. We make plans to start a meditation group. I become animated, suggesting how we might go about it.

'I'm back in life,' I think. 'I'm moving forward.'

But it's not a linear progression.

Suddenly I find myself thinking about a night last year when I had a glass of wine, and he wanted one too. I was scared to give him a full glass because I'd been given to understand it was dangerous for him, what with his Alzheimer's, his high risk of falls, and all the medications he was on. I gave him half a small glass. He sipped it with enjoyment. Then I could tell, from the look on his face, that he'd have liked a little more. Neither of us said anything, but we didn't have to. It was on both our faces: his wish, my fear of granting it, his resignation. All very sensible. I didn't know that the following night he would end up in hospital, and in only four weeks he'd be dead. 

So I think guiltily that I could have let him have that extra small glass he wanted. It wouldn't have hurt. It would have given him pleasure in the moment. And so on and so on and so on — even though I know I had no idea at that point that he wouldn't live for years, and I was looking after his long-term health. I cry and cry and cry about that glass of wine I denied him. (I don't suppose he himself remembered it even an hour later.)

And all this after feeling really good, really together.

Well, that is, except for the moment earlier today when, contemplating the prospect of my arthritis getting worse with age, and my family all far away, I was suddenly overcome with self-pity and screamed at him in my mind, 'Don't leave me alone!'

And that's what it's like. Sometimes I cry for him — for things that were hard for him when he was still here, even so trivially hard as missing out on a few sips of wine. And sometimes I cry for me, for having to live the rest of my life without him. 

Either can hit me after it seems that I'm making real progress — a sudden relapse for no obvious reason. There's just no logic to it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Nostalgia Trip

I'm in the Choux Box café in Kingscliff, looking across the road to the sunny blue ocean through the few foreshore trees. I'm having a mug of mocha coffee and a big slice of their amazing banana cream pie topped with toffee chips and macadamia nuts. Andrew and I came here a lot over the years, particularly the Pottsville years. It was one of our favourite places. I am trying to remember when the last time would have been. It must have been after we had moved back to Murwillumbah. He was already somewhat frail, I recall. 

We always had a mug of mocha and a slice of this very decadent pie. Today I am finding it a touch too rich, but I finish it all the same — a gesture to memory, and good times we shared. I am at the corner table we liked best. The breeze is just a little too brisk, as always; but, as always, the ambience is worth it.

I was going to visit a friend in Kingscliff after the Life Writing group today, but she texted me this morning to say she and her son have colds. I phoned another friend who lives in Cabarita, not far away, but she wasn't home. Somehow I was reluctant to leave Kingscliff today. In recent weeks I've been popping in and out to the Life Writing group, straight there and straight home afterwards, without any diversions. Today I finally did a bit of reconnecting, calling at the shopping centre, walking around and re-acquainting myself with it, and discovering some changes that make it even better than it used to be. 'I could shop here on Tuesdays,' I thought. 

That was before today's meeting, but I guess it set the mood for afterwards. I wanted to linger. So, when my friends weren't available, I decided to come to the Choux Box and have a little nostalgia trip. It's been nice, and so far hasn't made me cry. Instead I've enjoyed it, just as we both used to do. It's easy to imagine him here with me, as he was so often — every time until now. These are small, ordinary memories of relaxed pleasure. 

Lately I have found myself going over bits of our history together, my mind spontaneously summoning them up and running through them. Now it is bits of our history with Kingscliff that occur to me as I sit here. I look across the road to the right and see the little hall where our Reconciliation group, run by the indomitable Khani, staged an art show one year — a very successful art show. And down to the left is the market ground where Andrew and I often had a stall, and where we met Marieah, the lady who made me the purple goddess gown that I wore on my poetry tour of Texas.

I remember walking on the beach that last time we were here together, deploring what the erosion had done, and collecting stones to become the gratitude rocks which we gave away at the markets. No, that can't have been our last visit, because he stopped doing the markets a year before we moved to Murwillumbah. Also I remember him walking on the beach OK, which he couldn't have later — though impatient as always for me to hurry up and finish collecting the stones so we could get home. I wonder now if his legs were already giving him more trouble than he was letting on. But in any case, he was always impatient, always eager to get on to the next thing. Only in a few places, like this café, he could relax and enjoy some leisure. He was not a leisurely man. 

Monday, June 17, 2013


I realise my lifestyle hasn't changed that much. We had a lifestyle that suited us both — two writers in the same house. Of course, when we were younger we did more gadding about, and also ran more courses: Reiki, Tarot, Qabala, and writing workshops. As we got older we quietened down a bit, but only in the last three years really, as he became sicker. However, even in the early years, we spent a lot of time separately writing.

Now when I work at my computer, I still fall into a habitual mind set in which he too is sitting at his computer in another room — or perhaps lying in bed, reading or napping or waiting for me to join him. So the things I think about, I imagine telling him a little later. 

This no longer distresses me as it did at first. It has become, in a way, quite comforting. I guess I have become used to it, and while I really know all the time, underneath, that it is an illusion, still it is a pleasant illusion. I allow myself to bask a little while in the familiar warmth of his presence, glad I can still recall and recreate how that feels.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

When I change things, I cry

When I throw away some household gadget that I got and used during our life together, or when I acquire a new one that he will never use or see...

When I gaze with pleasure at my newly-created sunroom where his dark and cluttered office used to be...

When I cook things he wasn't allowed to eat...

When I decide not to watch a TV show he liked, or one that we used to watch together...

When I watch something he would not have liked, and enjoy it heartily...

When I wear something new that he never saw me in...

... I feel the past retreating, faster and faster, growing ever more distant. 

I move forward in my life. I do the things that work for me now. (There is no more us.) And I am happy about the things I do to make my life work for me. They are all my choices. I like them.

Nevertheless I cry. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Heavy Cold

I'm streaming from nose and eyes. Started last night and it's been almost non-stop ever since, over 24 hours already. Emotional, I know. 'Grief and other complications,' I told my friend Marian in a text. (The complication being the going wrong of what had seemed like a delightful new friendship — the other person easily hurt, and me unable to give her as much time and attention as she desired. Upsetting!)

Meanwhile I've been uncomfortably sick. It makes me feel childish and sorry for myself. I want my Mum to come and take care of me, or Bill (second husband) or most of all Andrew — the people who did so in the past — but they are all dead. When I am well, I am quite clear that I can take care of myself. When I'm sick, I want to crawl into bed and be a little girl again and have someone look after me.  And because this isn't going to happen, I bawl like a baby. 

And all the while I am actually looking after myself, of course. That's the trouble, though — that it's me who has to do it for myself. That's what makes me bawl. I have these moments where I feel that I've completely dropped my bundle — and yet I haven't actually dropped it at all, because I simply can't afford to. I HAVE to keep going. I have to look after myself because there's no-one else available. And so I do, alongside the complaining. 

Even when Andrew was in hospital last year and I had flu, I looked after myself without whingeing about it: it was so important to get well. I just got on with it, did what it took. Now there's not such an urgent reason, so I can afford to indulge in childishness; or I think I can. Not rational really, but there you go. Not only did I look after me very well last year, but him too. When he had a cold or anything, I babied him when that's what he wanted or needed, helped him be strong and (relatively) independent when that was required. You'd think I could look after me just as well, wouldn't you? Doesn't seem to work that way.


At that point I decided to re-read my posts for June last year at the 'Shifting Fog' blog in which I recorded Andrew's illness and decline. I thought maybe I could be having an extended anniversary reaction. Whew, could I what! I had forgotten already just how difficult a time that was, horrific for both of us. Obviously my subconscious is well aware. 

At that time Andrew was prescribed some new medications which didn't suit him. I did manage to get them switched to things with fewer nasty side-effects, but it took some doing. Meanwhile his dementia temporarily increased and he appeared to have some small strokes (maybe he did, though it's hard to know, as the observable effects didn't last). I can't bear to recount the details; it was all so very stressful. If anyone wants to read it and be harrowed, click on the blog link above, but I'll excuse you if you pass on that. 

[Another pause.]

I have put myself to bed now, with hot water bottles and a cup of cocoa. The cats have come in from outside through their cat door, and both are lounging on the bed with me and purring. It's nice.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bits and Pieces (Random Reflections)

* Poor little old single lady — it's a dead giveaway as I buy myself two carrots, a quarter cabbage, a tiny head of broccoli, only half a dozen eggs. Single and frugal.

* I've known my dear friend A for a long time now, but — both busy for years with sick husbands, as she still is — we only see each other now when we bump into each other out shopping. Luckily that happens quite often. Now that Andrew's gone, she makes a point of giving me, along with her beautiful wide smile, a quick pat on the arm, hug, or kiss on the cheek. She understands that I don't get so much of that any more.

* These days, when the toilet isn't flushed properly, or the dining table becomes cluttered with unread newspapers, or finger marks appear around the fridge door handle ... I can no longer assume it's him.  Revelation! Maybe it was always me, or at least a lot more often than I imagined. (I'm glad I didn't go crook at him for things like that but just quietly dealt with them, or how mean and guilty I'd be feeling now!)

* I've internalised him — all those empowering remarks. When it was no longer safe for him to drive and I took over full time, I used to find it irritating when he would say to me, in the middle of some sticky situation in which I was concentrating hard, 'You're doing well!' I wished he'd be quiet so I could be sure to stay focused. Now, though, those words come back to me at such times, as the reassurance they were meant to be, and I'm glad of them. So many other things he praised me for too, always admiring of any competence I showed at anything, and very nice it was to have it said. It's good now, when I must be more self-reliant than ever before, to have those oft-repeated compliments in my head, reminding me that I am capable and resourceful.

* I never have to worry about him any more, I realise suddenly — and then realise what a huge relief that is.

* Off to attend a lecture about growing one's own food, I realised I was a bit scared about fronting a room full of strangers, after my experience in December when I went to a xmas party and saw the couples visibly close ranks against me. I discovered it's quite different at a lecture. Nice, friendly people, whether couples, singles, or families. Everyone, including me, was intent on hearing the information we'd come for; I suppose that makes it different from a social occasion.

* We did the best we could, both of us — and it was very good. Sometimes, for a moment, I think, 'Yes, but what was the point of it all?' Then I recollect: Love was the point, always; and is and continues to be the point. Of it all. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Not Keeping Up With My Reading

Oh sure, I've always had a pile of books waiting to be read. So did he. There were a few he still hadn't got to when he died. A terrible  thought in one way, not to finish — or in some cases even start — every book you want to read before you die. But any book lover knows, it would be impossible. And in another way that's a good thing. How much worse it would be to run out, to have nothing more left to read! (Well yes, we compulsive readers would read cinema tickets and bus timetables if there was nothing else, but that's not quite the same.)

At present, however, the pile to be read is growing too fast, because I just can't get into many books these days. This is a very surprising thing in a lifelong bookworm like me. It's downright disconcerting. It has to be an extraordinary book to hold my interest now. I don't necessarily mean an extraordinary work of literature. 'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak did, because it's one of the most beautifully written books I've ever come across; but I'm struggling with Kate Grenville's acclaimed 'Secret River'. It's not that I don't like it, it's not that the characters aren't engaging. Despite that, it's hard to care. Some fantasy novels (my favourite fictional genre) have been a bit easier, but not much. I make my way through them slowly. Once I'd have devoured them almost too fast, sorry to reach the end.

This new phenomenon has become more pronounced, the longer it is since Andrew's death. I think I've finally realised why. Reading was a thing we often used to do together. I don't mean reading the same book at the same time — though occasionally we did that too, either looking over each other's shoulders or taking it in turns to read aloud. No, I mean that we used to sit up in bed together, at either end of the day, propped against our big pillows, and read side by side our different books. It was very companionable, very cosy. Sometimes we'd share aloud some special passage; often we'd say to each other, 'You have to read this book!' (which we often did). Reading in bed now is just another occasion for missing him.

I do read in other places too — at the meal table, in waiting rooms — as always, but I don't linger. I lost an earlier great love of my life many years ago, and I learned then that keeping busy is one way to get through a bereavement.  That gave me the habit; I've been a busy person ever since, always putting a bit too much on my plate. In Andrew's final years I was busier than ever before, caring for him round the clock and still trying to keep up with everything else in my life. It's not like that now; I've stopped running on the adrenaline and slowed right down. But still I use the trick of keeping occupied so as not to wallow in grief. I don't suppress it, but I don't live in it all the time, either. Sitting down to read just doesn't happen as often; if I sit down, it's more likely at the computer or iPad, where I'm doing the writing — whether that's making out my shopping list, writing a poem, or talking to people on Facebook. Or creating a blog post, as I'm doing now.

Wouldn't you think a good book would be the very thing to take me out of myself? Apparently not. Which is rather odd, as watching TV or DVDs does. I guess that the act of reading allows the mind to wander too much — to go off on a trail of association, and suddenly come bang up against the grief once more. On screen, the action keeps on going and you have to stay with it. Yes, it has emotional effects, but then it and I move on.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

About the Blankets on the Bed

I feel such pangs over such small, unexpected things. They are things which mark change.

I put clean sheets on the bed. It now has winter blankets on. The weather is likely to get colder yet. I think about that happening, and about adding the big tiger rug. Then I realise with a pang that this will probably be all I need. 

Andrew, with his circulation problems, sometimes had a lot of blankets on. We didn't have the tiger rug then, but we had various good woollen blankets, which each of us contributed to the household when we got together. Over the 20 years of our relationship, those blankets became our good friends, part of the family. Now, it's probable I'll never use them again — not on my bed. I have a moment of wishing for my friend Helen's ruthlessness in decluttering, but then I think I might need them for the spare beds, if at some time I have visitors in winter. They're doing no harm, stashed away in the bottom of the linen cupboard; they're not taking up space that I need for anything else. I may as well keep them. 

I straighten the big brown blanket which I'm using as a quilt at the moment. Andrew was the one who brought that into the marriage. I don't know its history prior to that — as I suppose he never knew the history of those chequered ones which I look at and remember my kids when they were little, and houses we lived in then. 

When I see the brown blanket, I  remember that when we lived up on Pinnacle Road I looked at the orange-gold satin ribbon edging it, which was worn and frayed and missing some sections, and decided the blanket itself was too good to be allowed to look like that any longer. I unpicked and removed all the ribbon, and got out some thick, deep red wool. You wouldn't think that'd go with dark brown, but it looked and still looks marvellous. I bound the edge all around with blanket stitch, using my big wool needle. Then I crocheted a fancy edging, hooking first into the row of blanket stitch. That must have been in 1995. It still looks good, and it kept us warm for the rest of those 20 years. Last year he was under it with me, and all those years before, every winter. But not this winter. Another pang.

I must stop dwelling on the memories that hurt. But they sneak up on me. They reside in my household goods, the familiar things we shared and enjoyed. So many memories! Good ones mainly, and occasionally I can dwell in them with pleasure. But, mostly, not yet.